(This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and e-mail todd at vanderwerff dot us or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and he'll take care of them as soon as possible.)
I know I predicted last week that it'd all be kicking off in this episode, but even with that, shit got impressively real on Game of Thrones episode seven, "You Win or You Die," as it became increasingly obvious that Cersei's title line (heavily used in the series' promotion) is going to be very true. I'm amazed at the situation Westeros is in with three episodes to go, i.e., the brink of civil war. I figured maybe we'd be getting to that point by the time the season came to a close. Instead, we get a truly shocking death this episode, both in how abruptly it happens and in how appropriately sad and pathtic it is.
Well, maybe the latter part was a little less than shocking. Fare thee well, King Robert Baratheon: assuming your off-screen death is not some sort of ploy for you to return triumphant later on (which seems unlikely), you died as you lived in this show. Sure, we heard tell of his former glories but to us, just from the frequent look on Ned's face, it was obvious what a shadow of himself Robert had become, and in that way it made sense that he died rashly charging a boar during a hunt. But the way it was presented was a little jarring; Renly, covered in blood, approaches Ned after the hunt and then we cut to Robert in bed, dictating his will to Ned; after that, we're told he died off-screen. Given how things work on this show, you almost expect foul play, except then Robert would have been a witness to his own murder. I'm not ruling out the fact (there was talk of the wine he was given by Lancel Lannister), but I think we're to assume he's a victim of hubris even so.
Mark Addy did well in his final scene, too -- he's been a great presence for the show, even though Robert really only had two modes, drunk-angry and drunk-melancholy. His contrition before Ned was a well-earned moment, as he looked back on a reign that will surely be best-remembered for how he got the throne, not what he did when he had it. In retrospect, it's obvious that Robert had to die, since he was what was keeping everyone in line, be it through his marriage to Cersi, his friendship with Ned or his connection to the Arryns. Now that he's gone, Cersi is backing Joffrey on the throne as rightful ruler, while Ned seeks to install the unseen Stannis Baratheon, Robert's brother, who apparently has been gone this whole time (I assume he's been mentioned before, but this is the first time we really hear about him).
In a great scene near the start of the episodes, Ned confronts Cersei with what he knows, and she keeps that icy poker face on even as she cops to having all her children with Jaime (apparently keeping it in the family is considered preferable) and apparently basically never letting Robert have sex with her to completion, finishing him off in other ways instead, which is kinda nuts -- we're supposed to believe that he never noticed because he's always drunk. It certainly forgives his epic whoring a little bit. And yet, as Cersei admits to everything, we still feel an ounce of sympathy for a woman who was wed at a young age to a powerful conqueror who quickly proved himself a drunken sot in love with a dead woman. If this show has a straight-up villain now that Viserys is gone, it is Ceresi (who exudes constant menace) but she's not without depth.
Plus, this week we finally meet her father, Tywin Lannister, played by Charles Dance, who meets and surpasses the considerable off-screen reputation the character has built up over the course of the show. Dance is a wonderful actor, but he's often cast as mean old dudes where old is the key word. But Tywin, who dresses down Jaime while gutting and skinning a deer in his one scene, is wiry and tough and coldly terrifying. Jaime, obsessed with his public image, is obviously cowed by the man; Cersi obviously takes after his chilly pragmatism; Tyrion, we assume, deals with this mean bastard with his own mean sense of humor, which I'm sure goes over just splendidly. In this one scene, we see where the whole Lannister mojo comes from and how it's split over his three kids, and it's really one of the best scenes of the show so far.
I have less praise for Petyr's bit of character-development, which is delivered well by Aidan Gillen...as he watches two prostitutes pleasure each other (they are in whorehouse training, and one of them is Ros, the girl from Winterfell). It's like they're afraid we won't be interested in what makes Petyr tick if he doesn't tell us while simultaneously showing a girl how to finger-bang another girl. I understand the loose connection to what he's talking about (his love for Catelyn, his anger at her treating his love as boyish infatuation) and where it leads us to (him "fucking people," i.e. drawing a knife on Ned in the cliffhanger) but it's still pretty hilarious to see him say that he's been in love for many years, and then slip in, "Play with her arse."
Petyr's ultimate betrayal of Ned is well-telegraphed. I don't think he would have done it had Ned gone along with his plan to control Joffrey as regent and sort out who's the rightful heir later. Ned is horrified at his lack of honor, which is all we expect of our protagonist, and yet by now, we know Petyr has a point -- when you're dealing with entirely dishonorable people, honor is a hindrance, not an asset. The audience is on Ned's side for the whole episode, and his one bit of deceit (writing "my rightful heir" instead of "Joffrey" in Robert's will) shows how clever he can be. Plus, our sympathies are hardly with Joffrey, evil little shit that he is, nor Cersei.
But it's to the show's credit that Ned's path is hardly one of simple heroism. Catelyn's decision to arrest Tyrion (who is sadly offscreen this week) was a foolish one, and her taking him to the Eryie was even dumber. Not telling Robert what he had discovered was probably an error too, even though it would have been piling on the man while he laid dying. But Robert's last orders, given alive, could probably have made some impact. Once he's dead, they're worth the paper they're printed on, as Cersei demonstrates to the horror of Ned, Barristan (who obviously still has a shred of honor) and absolutely no one else. But Ned's worst decision in my eyes was to keep is kids in King's Landing when he had multiple opportunities to get them away, but kept getting distracted by Petyr's trail of breadcrumbs. Arya and Sansa were not seen this week, but god knows what's in store for them next week.
Of course, the most intriguing thing about this brewing civil war is that none of the lords know, or could hope to predict, the hell coming for them from Khal Drogo and the Dothraki, who is provoked only by the somewhat ridiculous assassination attempt on Daenerys. Seriously, who would have thought she'd be charmed by that wine salesman in that market? Or did Jorah, who obviously has been working as a double-agent, lead her there? Either way, it seems Jorah has picked a side for good, either because he knows a winner when he sees one or because he's in love with Daenerys as Viserys hinted last week. Before the poisoned wine, Drogo was obviously looking forward to a nice, quiet marriage to Daenerys, but now, in typically over-the-top fashion, he's promising pillaging and rape and plunder and all the rest of it for Westeros. Unlike most of the developments on this show, which have been enjoyably surprising twists, I think we all saw this coming from day one.
And not only is there the danger from across the sea, but there's the danger from across the wall, as hinted by both the wildling prisoner and the severed hand Jon's direwolf picks up while Jon is being sworn in as a member of the black watch. Jon's story was probably the least interesting this week, because it felt like a rehash of weeks prior -- Jon's arrogance gets the better of him, his friends gently remind him to stop being so self-important, and he calms down. But I did like his exchange with Sam: "I always wanted to be a ranger." "Well, I always wanted to be a wizard!"
Quibbles aside, it's nice to see Game of Thrones rise to the challenge it set itself with all the characters, all the plot machinery and all the table-setting of the last six episodes. A lot of shows start out that way and don't know how to close -- but this doesn't seem like one of them. Here's to next week.
- Tywin has respect for Ned, if not much. "That's Stark. Brave man, terrible judgment."
- I know I ragged on Petyr's scene in the whorehouse, but his monologue was a good bit of exposition/character work, which this show has been so adept with. That's why you don't need naked ladies -- it's actually interesting enough to stand alone!
- Theon's brief scene with the wildling woman did not exactly endear me to his character. He's definitely my least favorite of the Winterfell bunch.
- The disposal of the poison wine merchant did not look like fun. Pretty hard to die quickly that way.
- Ned not only ignores Petyr's advice to control Joffrey, but Renly's too -- except Renly's centers around his brother Stannis, who sounds like a serious warrior type. Later, we hear he's gone off with Ser Loras, another possible spanner in the works for the Lannisters in the next weeks.